Sophie Muller Interview - 16th November 2010



 

 

 

A selection of music videos directed by Sophie Muller.
Top row: Annie Lennox, 'Walking on Broken Glass' (1992); The Jesus and Mary Chain feat. Hope Sandoval, 'Sometimes Always' (1994).
Middle row: Sugababes, 'Freak Like Me' (2002); Gwen Stefani, 'Cool' (2005).
Bottom row: Shakira feat. Wyclef Jean, 'Hips Don't Lie' (2006); Cheryl Cole, 'Promise This' (2010).

BREAKING THE CODE OF WEIRDNESS

SOPHIE MULLER is one of the UK's leading video directors. In a career spanning three decades she has worked with artists ranging from the Eurythmics to Radiohead and, in early 1995, The Stone Roses with a video for Ten Storey Love Song. The band's penultimate single, it would be the final time John Squire and Ian Brown appeared together on film. In November 2010, she spoke to This Is The Daybreak about her career and her work with The Stone Roses.


How did you get started as a video director ?

I went to film school and I couldn't get any work as a film-maker ! All my films have been quite musical based, and it seemed like the obvious thing to do because I couldn't get a job. For a while I was like 'oh I'm going to be making my own films, but I'll also do this to earn money Ė but then I thought "no, I'm just going to make the best videos I can, that'll be my filmmaking."


Your first video was Eurythmics' 'The Walk' - how did that happen ?

I was at a company which was run by Dave Stewart's brother and the Eurythmics were around, but I was never considered to do a job because I was too lowly. I just got lucky because they wanted someone who could technically help them make their own video. I went "are you kidding ? Of course I will !" Annie wanted to direct, but she didn't actually do it in the end, I did.


Do you have to like the band or artist you are working with ?

It really helps. I've learned over the years you don't always have to love the music because in some ways the film-making experience is just as important. Sometimes my most enjoyable jobs have been for music I've not particularly cared for. I don't do things because I think they're cool. I've done a lot of things which would be considered that ! I like to be able to do really commercial stuff and also stuff which isn't, and I've always tried to maintain both strands of my career.


What were your influences ?

A mixture of stuff. I like things to look a certain way but I always try and get atmosphere. People look at me blankly, but I always say "it's most important that the atmosphere is right, does it work with the song ?" I love beautiful images but I always like them to have some sort of emotional context, so I suppose it's a combination of those two things. I grew up watching The Sound of Music about 50 times a day, so I knew the power of music combined with film. I love it when something has a strong performance. If I do have a style it's that I give the performer a leading role and I stick by that.


Is it true that you don't use storyboards ?

I do do some... but only when it's absolutely necessary. I just like a 'looseness'. I like to be reactive, and I'll change direction, whereas if you do a storyboard everyone expects to follow it. To me that's quite boring, because how do you know what you're going to see ? Some people really film exactly what they want to film, but I tend to flow a bit more. I'll see something or someone will do something and I'll film that rather than keeping to my original plan.


When you approach a project, do you have a 'stock' of ideas ?

No, I don't have any ideas ! I have a terrible dearth of ideas. Which is why I always want to talk to the artists and try and get them to come up with ideas. I don't really tend to get ideas from music, I get ideas from the artist.


So you meet up with an artist and have a kind of ideas 'hothouse' ?

Yeah, we meet up and discuss. I won't say "what's the song about ?" I just say how do you want to be in the video, is there any image you see, what sort of video do you want it to be like, how do you want people to see you, is there anything you want to address, do people think you're too serious, do you want to be very confrontational - just more like that than about the song.


What was your first meeting with The Stone Roses like ?

I went to New York to meet the band. I think it was Geffen Records who approached me. I'd worked with them on Weezer and Hole, so I had a good working relationship with them. Geffen was really behind Ten Storey Love Song and they wanted to spend a lot of money. For me it was quite awkward because the whole idea of flying to New York to meet them seemed so weird, they were a British band and I was living in England. I met the band I think at the Parker Meridian hotel. It was a bit awkward, but I remember John being very affable and easy to talk to. All four band members were there. I went back to my room thinking "what the hell am I going to do, I literally haven't got any ideas." I remember staring at a blank piece of paper thinking "oh god." And then I remember coming up with this thing like well, if it's like some kind of dream-state, I guess anything can happen. And then I think I got the idea that Ian was kind of a bit ill, and in a state of delirium, so there was the idea that the band were hanging out together and something was going on. Now why I came up with that I've no idea, but I think the next day I might have re-met them. I remember Reni was there, because of course he didn't come to the shoot. But I didn't hang out with them or go drinking - John was ill* of course - so it was kind of business-like. It makes me feel very uncomfortable as I'm not particularly a corporate kind of person and I don't normally work for the record company.

* John Squire contracted pleurisy in the early months of 1995.


Were you a particular fan of their music ?

Yeah, I was flattered ! In '95...I think I might have done Jeff Buckley - I know there was one video I made which I know a lot of bands liked. Maybe they liked my Weezer video. Obviously having worked with Annie Lennox I can't imagine The Stone Roses going "yeah, that's the director for us !" I did have quite a lot of alternative sort of music stuff that I'd done, but I don't remember any conversation about that. I was in a complete state of panic because I thought they were a great band, and I was really flattered to be asked to work with them. But I didn't know what it was about my work that they could possibly relate to. It didn't seem like a good marriage at all.


Where was the video shot ?

Near Three Mills in the East End of London. It was called something else then though.


What sort of creative input did John Squire have ?

I remember coming up with the idea about a 'state of dreams'. And it might have been something John had said, as he used a lot of language that I guess...he really likes the arts so it was easy for me to talk to him on that level. It wasn't like [Mancunian accent] "just make me look good."


There's a particular Francis Bacon influence on some of the imagery in the video.

There's a lot of themes, but I can't remember why they're there or where they all came from. Maybe John said "I love Francis Bacon." Where the Pope thing came from, I have no idea - maybe he said "I love the pope !" I said that would make an amazing nightmare - imagine if you're really ill and you're hallucinating and you see one of the band members become the Velazquez Pope ! If someone's said something like "I really like Francis Bacon", I'll relate it to that and I'll try and please them by trying to make that work. We dressed Mani up as the Pope and he looks so...freaky, weird, just without the Francis Bacon effect ! I remember loving it. It was magical because it was so weird. I was fascinated by how amazingly horrible and weird it looked.


How did the shoot progress ?

It was a two day shoot. We all turned up on the first day and there was a lot of people - in London, huge crew, really big set build, built a huge room which was like a whole 'environment' - and Ian just didn't come ! So, Reni just never came, and Ian then didn't come. So basically John and Mani were there and they were like "We're really sorry, I don't know why he's not here" and I was like "er, well the whole video is kind of just like him on this bed." So that's why we filmed all that weird stuff of hoovering and them sitting around because we had nothing to film. There was a lot of stuff we did of them which I actually really liked, that weird stuff of them in the room. And there's one shot of one of the runners wearing a Reni mask which we just cut out - blew up a paper picture of his face.

It was really paralysing, but I think what happened was that it was Ian's son's birthday, and he wanted to go to the birthday party and he was still up north. And I remember saying to them "does he realise that there's sixty people just sitting waiting ?" And I honestly don't think he realised. He was really apologetic when he eventually turned up; "I'm so sorry, I didn't realise" and I'm thinking "OK..." He was completely nice about it, he was lovely. It was one of those weird, kind of surreal things. He phoned and said he'd be down later, and I was like "down later ? This is a film-shoot !"


The band was a bit dysfunctional at the time - wasn't this effectively the last time they appeared together on film ?

Well after that I remember going to Berlin and filming a whole lot of stuff with them live. I think they used the footage which I shot - which was all test footage - in a video [Begging You]. We shot an entire concert, but it was just Bolex and Super 8 and not sync'ed up. I remember seeing them a couple of times after TSLS and that's why I ended up going to Berlin. It was a one-night thing and I don't know why I did it and it must have led to something else, but I remember seeing the footage in the Begging You video and thinking "charming !" I didn't get paid...but that's ok.

It's very emotional working with musicians. You get into this whole space with them where you love the music. I find musicians amazing because everyone seems to do it because they love what they do. I havenít met many people who just do it for money... and I try and reciprocate and be like that as well. And to be flown to Berlin and film The Stone Roses in concert doesn't feel like work to me ! "Where do I sign, I'll go."


There's a sequence of short clips at the beginning of the video - what are these and why were they included ?

Actually I'm going to get it, I've not watched it for a long time [searches for TSLS on YouTube]. Some of my college film is there. The child on a swing is my godson. There's a black and white thing of a girl and a man with really hard contrast like an old film - that was from my college film.


John and Mani are watching the American Love Spreads video on the TV.

I'm pretty sure I said "why donít you watch the video you didn't use", and it's a sort of in-joke, and there's the bit of them sitting round the TV and it's part of the whole code of weirdness of it all. There's a little in-joke where John turns round and looks at his watch with a picture of Ian on the screen. [Watches more of the video] It's a really weird video ! [laughs]


There's a bit of Shakespear's Sister in there isn't there ?

No ! It looks a bit like it, but I think it's what inspired me to do Shakespear's Sister, I don't think it actually is it. [Video loads] Oh it's got a measly 65,000 viewings ! Unbelievable. Oh there is Shakespear's Sister [gasps] How did I get that in there ?! Ah it's filmed off the TV isn't it. I had no idea, well done. [video plays in background] I liked the Hindenburg, I found that image really nightmarish, the whole thing of it burning. The children and the insects came from Sergio Leone, it's a bit from the beginning of one of his films.


What about the ice-smashing sequence ?

They loved doing that, it was the high point of the shoot. But it made John's pleurisy bad !


Did you detect any tensions within the band on the shoot ?

Apart from the fact the drummer never came, I knew there was something wrong ! They were really incredibly nice, Mani and John seemed incredibly together. It was hilarious because at the end of the first day we still hadn't filmed anything of Ian. We just filmed loads of stuff of the band just hanging out, hoovering. By that point I was totally relaxed just thinking "whatever, it's not my fault the bloody band don't turn up, there's nothing I can do." The record company were freaking out. Ian turned up right at the end of the day and said "let's get on with it." I showed him the script and he said "oh I don't want to do any of this" and I was like "what do you mean you don't want to do it, that's the script, haven't you seen it before ?" and he went 'no' !


Did Ian have an alternative plan ?

I have no idea. I was so bemused by the whole thing. He said "I don't want to be ill, I don't want to be perceived as ill", and I said "well that's the idea, the idea is you are sick, you've got a fever and that's why everything's slightly kind of distorted." And he was like "mmm nah I don't want to be ill" and I said "well to be perfectly honest I have no idea what to do then, because this is the idea. Otherwise what is this, what is going on ?" Eventually he went "oh alright I'll give it a go." I just thought it was hilarious, there was this huge video and two of the band didn't turn up and then when one of them did turn up, he didn't want to do the idea because he hadn't read the treatment ! I couldn't believe it was happening considering I'd gone to America to meet them and we'd had a dialogue. I think a lot of the ideas had come from John and my dialogue with him, and obviously Ian wasn't interested until it was too late. But having said that, when he was there he was really intellectual about what we were doing and was really into it. I'd never had an experience like that before...where a band would turn up and not know what they were doing. Looking back I do think it was the fact that the band weren't communicating with each other particularly well.


The interplay between Ian and John in the video is quite tender.

Yes - I felt that between them. I felt like they were mates. [Continues watching the video Little in-joke there where he puts the guitar down for the guitar solo] They were really cool, they were into everything. I don't really like the Francis Bacon effect on John. The Mani bit is better where his face melts. It was really early days of technology ! I think Ian has got such an amazing face. It was a strangely enjoyable shoot, it was fun. And it looks kind of interesting. John must have talked about certain artists, perspective and that kind of thing...the only obvious one is Francis Bacon. I liked the whole idea of being in this room and the bed steaming and stuff. It's really hard to make things that are 'delirious' - it's really hard. It's difficult when people are used to playing instruments and suddenly you're asking them to sit on a sofa and just 'be'. Looking back, Mani is actually very good.


The age of era-defining music video seems to have gone.

They're no longer events like they were. I think because they're so easy to view, it's taken away a lot of magic. I remember watching MTV when there was only one channel and you really wanted to see a certain video and you'd just have to sit through loads of crap 'til you got to the one you wanted to see, and you might not see it 'til three in the morning. Now you just go on YouTube and get whatever you want, so they're so easy I don't think anyone's interested.


Are you finding that record companies are less eager to spend money on promos ?

I still get a lot of work. It's just not...you'd just never now get a band like The Stone Roses getting a lot of money to make a video. That was a golden age... '94 was crazy. Everyone got 90 grand or 100 grand or 300 grand.


Which of your videos are you most proud of ?

I really like the Weezer video I made [Say It Ain't So]. That gives me shivers every time I watch it. That was about the same year, about 1994.


Shakespear's Sister's Stay must be a favourite.

That was just fun. Out of the Shakespear's Sister ones I like Goodbye Cruel World best - which of course was not a hit. I really like the one I did for Beetlebum, for Blur. I like the Jesus and Mary Chain one I did with Hope Sandoval for Sometimes Always. My PJ Harvey ones I like.


Who are you working with at the moment ?

[Geordie accent] Cheryl Cole ! She's great. She's a fascinating character. She's definitely got huge charisma and star quality and I guess it's that which I'm really interested in, what makes people special and good to film. I just did Kings of Leon as well - you could say they're pretty far apart. Could you say there are many directors who've worked with The Stone Roses, and [then] Kings of Leon and Cheryl Cole in one month ?


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